This week with Brian 9 to 16 May 2024

Further Afield the week according to Brian Quinn

This Week with Brian

Your Local Area

Including a poor result, the really bad news, another defection, narrowing options, a cover-up, Mr Gutman’s view, low life and great art, interest rates, the Saudi line, claims and counter claims, a fake newspaper, the pros and cons of abatement, fostering, an ultimate dog tease, examining the plan, a pub landlord, 93.4%, an odd distinction and a thousand trees.

Click on the appropriate buttons to the right to see the local news from your area (updated every Thursday evening).

If there’s anything you’d like to see covered for your area or anything that you’d like to add to something that we’ve covered already, drop me a line at brian@pennypost.org.uk

Further afield

The election results last week were probably about as bad as the Conservatives could have expected with nearly 500 councillors lost and just the one mayor (who campaigned more on the basis of his own popularity than on his party affiliation). People often vote in a different way in local elections, partly for tactical reasons but also in a few cases because they might actually be thinking about local issues. Even so, things don’t look that great for the blues. A YouGov poll released this week places Labour 30 points ahead. This is the worst prediction for the Tories since the days of Liz Truss, a low point from which they might reasonably have been expected to have recovered by now.

[more below]

• Perplexing

The failure to unseat Sadiq Khan in London must have been particularly galling after all the talk of a ULEZ rebellion. Perhaps the fault was with the Conservatives’ rather perplexing choice of candidate. Equally perplexing was her claim afterwards that she had “so nearly defeated” him, despite falling short by well over a quarter of a million votes, a record margin. This was one Conservative defeat that Reform UK couldn’t be blamed for as its candidate polled only about 75,000.

Nor did she seem to command a great deal of support from her own party, the i claiming that she was widely seen as a “weak candidate” who had, perhaps, only been selected by mistake. Some went even further. “The really bad news would have been if she won,” a member of Boris Johnson’s City Hall team told the same paper. “She has never run anything, let alone a city the size of London.” Mind you, nor had Boris.

As for when the election will be called, the options are narrowing. 25 working days are needed between the dissolution of the old parliament and the election of the new one so that effectively means about five weeks. No election in recent times has been held in July or August and any campaigning during the summer holidays would probably be deeply unpopular, not least among the candidates. Anything happening in December would be equally unwelcome so that only really leaves October and November unless Sunak’s going to do something very soon. However, campaigning during the exam period doesn’t seem like such a smart idea either.

If he takes no action then this parliament will automatically be dissolved on 17 December, the fifth anniversary of when it first met, with an election taking place on 28 January. Surely that isn’t going to happen?

• Defection

Calculations about exactly how many Conservative MPs are vulnerable to losing their seats are complicated by the fact that a fair few of them have, for reasons that range from disgrace to defection, lost their seats themselves and ceased to be Tory MPs, or MPs at all. The most recent was Natalie Elphicke who crossed the floor to Labour on 8 May, saying that the Tories “have become a byword for incompetence and division”.

Though this might seem like an eye-catching coup for Starmer that caps off a very good few days, some in the party feel that this is taking generosity too far. Neil Kinnock was one such, being quoted in the Evening Standard as saying that “I think we have got to be choosy to a degree about who we allow to join our party because it’s a very broad church but churches have walls and there are limits.” Labour’s policy of open borders and “let them all come”, in other words, is being met by some cries of “stop the boats”.

Labour MP Mick Whitley’s view was that “It’s outrageous that she should be allowed to join the Labour benches while principled socialists like Diane Abbott and Jeremy Corbyn still haven’t had the whip restored.” Perhaps the problem is with principled socialists. The Labour Party was full of them between 1979 and 1997 and it lost four elections in a row.  

Elphicke certainly doesn’t seem to be a socialist – nor, according her former colleagues, principled – but this is clearly not a problem for Starmer. Nor would seem to be some of her past criticisms of the party, particularly over the fraught matter of immigration. At this stage of a parliament, my enemy’s enemy is my friend and that’s that.

In any case, it doesn’t seem as if she’ll be around on the opposition benches for too long as it appears she’s not planning to stand again. Were she to do so, it would provide a headache for her new leader who would then have to decide what to do with the Labour candidate Mike Tapp who has been campaigning in the constituency for some time.

• Inquiry

The PO Inquiry continues to provide a stream of examples of legal and other experts who now find themselves having to justify decisions taken or not taken at the time without saying they were aware they were participating in a cover-up. Variations on the themes of “I wasn’t told that”, “I can’t remember” or “in retrospect I would have done things differently” have featured prominently, including in the last few sessions.

The one on 8 May pitted KCs against a KC (Brian Altman, who acted for the Post Office between 2013 and 2021), which was always likely to produce a few fireworks. Altman’s ethics were under scrutiny for part of the time, including when Altman admitted that he didn’t rectify a failure of disclosure by Fujitsu’s now discredited expert witness, Gareth Jenkins.

Towards the end of the day, Altman was (not for the first time) asked by Sam Stein KC if he’d been misled by the Post Office. As if reflecting on a philosophical point made during a debate in a seminary, he described this as “an interesting proposition” adding that “I never thought I was set up but it is a thought to wrestle with.” No kidding. To a large degree that’s what the whole show is about.

I suggested last week that the lawyers to some extent have a ready-made defence in that they are representing their clients and work on the assumption that they’ve been told all the relevant facts. What happens when they start to suspect or guess that other interpretations may be available or that information should be disclosed depends on the person and circumstances.

I can see that if you identify strongly with your client’s interests – and in a way you must – you can also become affected by whatever groupthink prevails there. At colossal expense, the lawyer has perhaps been suborned; brought on-side; re-educated. It also can’t be any fun if you have a reputation as a clear-thinker to maintain that you have, perhaps for many years, been worshipping the wrong god. Anyone can be misled by bad directions. The real test is whether you have the courage to perform a U-turn and admit that you’re on the wrong road. There are the fees to think about as well.

• Delicate judgement

All in all, this is a situation that “calls for the most delicate judgment on both sides. Because, as you know, sir, in the heat of action men are likely to forget where their best interests lie…”

This line was one of the many memorable remarks made by Caspar Gutman in the exquisite The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett. The book was memorably filmed by John Huston (who was wise enough generally to leave whole chunks of the dialogue unchanged, as John Mortimer did with Brideshead, both regarding the originals as being beyond improvement) with Humphrey Bogart as the hard-boiled PI Sam Spade.

On several occasions they discussed the tangled history of a valuable 16th-century statuette. However, some of Gutman’s remarks could be describing more contemporary events.

“I distrust a close-mouthed man,” he says to Spade at one point. “He generally picks the wrong time to talk and says the wrong things. Talking’s something you can’t do judiciously, unless you keep in practice.” It would appear that some of those most culpable in the affair had been close-mouthed in the past. Some may also have said the wrong things at the wrong time. How many of them are talking judiciously now?

“Here’s to plain speaking and clear understanding” he opines on another occasion, before launching into another round of cunningly blended fiction and fact which Spade is too sharp to fall for. The phrase might usefully be adopted as an alternative to the traditional “I promise to tell the truth…” court oath. There’s been little plain speaking from those questioned so far. One hopes that the judge will arrive at clear understanding at the end of this real-life film noir.

Gutman later describes the Falcon, which had been concealed under an enamel coating during a period of anonymity. “In that disguise, sir, it was, you might say, kicked around for more than three score years, by private owners too stupid to see what it was under the skin.” Well, OK, the Post Office hasn’t been in its current ownership for quite that long but the rest of the sentiments seem to stack up pretty well if applied to Horizon.

“Seventeen years I’ve wanted that little item and I’ve been trying to get it,” he observes towards the end of the story. “If we must spend another year on the quest… well, sir, it will be an additional expenditure in time of only… five and fifteen seventeenths percent.” Gutman’s remark clearly foreshadows the timescale, tenacity and mathematical acumen of Alan Bates. The similarities are getting a bit spooky…

Not that Gutman has all the good lines. “We didn’t exactly believe your story,” Sam Spade dryly tells the enigmatic Brigid O’Shaughnessy, played by Mary Astor in the film. “We believed your 200 dollars. I mean, you paid us more than if you had been telling us the truth, and enough more to make it all right.” The sounds a bit familiar as well.

“You know, that’s good,” he tells her after cross-examining her about what’s been going on. “If you actually were as innocent as you pretend to be, we’d never get anywhere.” Some of the counsels to the Inquiry might have been tempted to ask the same question. They might yet.

Then there’s the effete Joel Cairo, memorably brought to life in the film by Peter Lorre – the cast list just gets better and better. “I certainly wish you would have invented a more reasonable story,” he complains to Spade at one point. “I felt distinctly like an idiot repeating it.” Again, some of the witnesses must be feeling the same way. Looking back now, so much of what they thought was true doesn’t any longer make any sense.

I could go on. But let the last word come from Mr Gutman: “Well, sir, the shortest farewells are best. Adieu.”

It would appear not. The hearings are set to last at least until the end of September with Sir Wyn Williams’ report following “as soon as practicably possible” after all the evidence has been heard.

In the meantime, there are sure to be plenty of smoking guns, false leads, memorable exchanges and fall guys. Hopefully this drama will also produce the kind of clear justice that was seen at the end of The Maltese Falcon, despite all the lies, ambition and obfuscation that had gone before: low life, in other words, imitating great art.

• And finally

The Bank of England has decided to hold interest rates at 5.25%, saying that it needs to “see more evidence” that price rises have slowed further before cutting them further (as many people with mortgages would wish). The Bank of England has been independent of government control since 1997 so any success in combatting inflation as a result of this approach is down to the Bank, not the government: contrary to what we often read elsewhere.

• No sønner are the local elections done than we’re being doused in claims and counter-claims about each party’s chances in The Big One. I’ve had a look at one local leaflet below. Two others have been sent to me this afternoon. They happen to relate to the neighbouring seat of Mid Berkshire but I doubt the claims are unique.

One (from the Lib Dems) offers a bar chart based on the most recent council elections (May 2023 in most cases) and shows the LDs and the Conservatives next and neck. The other (from Labour) uses figures from Electoral Calculus which suggests Labour ahead of the Conservatives and the LDs nowhere. Take you pick: or make something up.

• It seems that Saudi Arabia is building an eco-city, which this article on the BBC website refers to as “The Line“. Nothing too strange about that, you might think. What does seem odd is that it’s going to be 200m wide, 500m tall and 170km long making it quite like, well, a line. To add to the dystopian images this creates, it’s alleged that the government has permitted the use of lethal force to the clear the settlements that are in the way. The balloons and ticker tape doesn’t need to be ordered quite yet, though, as only 2.5km of it is expected to have been completed by 2030.

In this respect, it closely resembles HS2, or Trump’s “beautiful” wall. Depending on how the US election goes, we may be hearing a bit more about the last one over the next four years. No election result in the UK is likely to see HS2 revived. As for Saudi Arabia, elections are something the government there doesn’t have to worry about…

Across the area

• A look at the leaflets

With the election coming at some point, so too are the leaflets from the various candidates. I’ll be trying to have a look at all of them and taking a closer look at some the claims they make. Yesterday through our letter box we received not one but two copies of the one from Lee Dillon, standing for the Lib Dems in Newbury.

First problem was that it’s pretending to be a local paper, something called the West Berkshire Herald. I agree that the real provenance is written in far smaller letters under the masthead but nobody reads that. What they see is (a) a banner which makes them feel they’re looking at a local paper which are meant to apply some form of journalistic standards to what’s covered; and (b) a headline that reads “Support grows for Lee Dillon.”

Anything that passes itself off as something else is not to be trusted. This is not illegal as long as the imprint is shown: but the worth of a politician isn’t measured solely by their managing to avoid breaking the law. Several organisations, including Byline Times, have long been campaigning against this insidious practice.

Turning to the content, the first problem is the headline “Support grows for Lee Dillon.” There’s no evidence for this.

The main graphic item on the first page is a bar chart showing the Lib Dems leading the Conservatives. This is irrelevant to the general election in three ways: the figures are over a year old; they relate to a local not national election; and they relate to the whole of West Berkshire not the smaller Newbury constituency. We can therefore dismiss that.

Underneath, is the text “it’s so close here.” The graph suggests that it isn’t. So, what’s the point being made here? Are we dealing with a landslide or a knife-edge? Looking at two online polls, one suggests Laura Farris will win comfortably while another suggests that Lee Dillon will so that’s not much help.

Inside, the leaflet has a “Comment” from Lib Dem leader Ed Davey which has no reference to the constituency at all so we can dismiss this as well. There’s then something about Lee Dillon’s opposition to moving the Royal Berkshire Hospital further east, which I don’t know too much about; and an appeal for money.

The back page repeats the “so close” theme and issues an appeal to tactical voters. There’s also quite a big play made of the fact that Labour has made the seat a “non-battleground” one (confirmed by this internal document). However, if the large graph on p1 was to be trusted, we knew that anyway.

What most strikes me about this, however, is that apart from the bit about the hospital and the predictions as to how the vote might go, there’s nothing really about the constituency. There are two more or less identical panels with pics of the last three PMs and the heading “time to go”: but that’s a national issue.

No one is seriously suggesting that the Lib Dems will form the next government. What this contest is about is whether or not Lee Dillon is likely to be a better MP than Laura Farris.

True, there is a section on his own virtues and background: but these are pretty similar to those claimed by every candidate. There’s no critique of her time as MP, no opportunity taken to damn her with faint praise (that most effective of tactics) nor to challenge her recent statements. With four pages at Lee Dillon’s disposal, this looks like an opportunity spurned.

Any floating voter – important if this is indeed “so close” – will not find anything in it for them here. The main message is that “only Lee Dillon can beat the Conservatives” but there’s nothing to argue why, locally, this would be a good thing.

In fact, the most local thing about it is the masthead of the “newspaper” that this pretends to be: and that, unfortunately, is fake.

• Abatement notices

On 25 April, I covered in our Newbury Area Weekly News column the fact that Newbury Town Councillor and Green Party prospective parliamentary candidate for Newbury, Steve Masters, had requested that West Berkshire Council take “decisive action” against Thames Water for polluting our communities.

He pointed out that “Under Section 79e and section 80 of the Environmental Protection Act (1990) there is a requirement for local authorities to serve an abatement notice where a statutory nuisance exists” including where there is “any accumulation or deposit which is prejudicial to health or a nuisance”.

He also pointed to Section 80 which states that “where a local authority is satisfied that a statutory nuisance exists, or is likely to occur or recur, in the area of the authority, the local authority shall serve a notice (“an abatement notice”) imposing all or any of the following requirements— (a) requiring the abatement of the nuisance or prohibiting or restricting its occurrence or recurrence; (b) requiring the execution of such works, and the taking of such other steps, as may be necessary for any of those purposes, and the notice shall specify the time or times within which the requirements of the notice are to be complied with.”

Whether directly in response to this suggestion or otherwise, it appears from conversations I’ve had on 9 May that this possibility has been accepted by WBC. The Council has looked into the legal aspects and concluded that, although mainly used for domestic issues, abatement notices do potentially have a place in its armoury. It also seem to be the case that whereas visits made by WBC’s officers to sewage-affected sites had not previously considered if the problem constituted nuisance, now they do. This is a small step forward.

Six such visits around the district were conducted last week and many found no evidence of what could be regarded as a nuisance now. Any such visits made a few months ago with test in mind would have produced a very different conclusion. and the groundwater levels are dropping

There are, however, several considerations facing WBC. The main one is probably assessing whether it has any reasonable chance of success. In terms of compelling Thames Water to fix all its pipes in the district, it probably wouldn’t. We are, however, dealing with a war of attrition where there’s no grand decisive battle but a number of skirmishes of different kinds which might cumulatively force the opponent to comply. Looking at points (a) and (b) above, the Act accepts that measures that fall short of a total solution to the problem are enforceable – in other words, more mitigation.

The mitigation TW currently employs in West Berkshire alone (tankers, pumping, ATACs and the like) must be costing millions of pounds a year. Even this expense, plus the fines that Environment Agency from time to levies, have not been sufficient to make fixing the problem the cheaper option.

It’s a shame that over the last ten years TW did not agree a massive, worst-case budget for such mitigation which, if not spent, could then only be diverted into infrastructure improvements the following year. Mind you, money – like water – can flow in unexpected ways and there’s no way we could have been sure in such a byzantine organisation that sums were not diverted into other channels more appealing to the shareholders. After all, if mitigation + fines is cheaper than solving the problem, in commercial terms it’s logical to go with the former. That’s another reason why the current water model is pretty broken.

One of the things that the abatement notices might accomplish is a bit more mitigation and so some slight extra benefits for residents and extra costs for TW, thus slightly tilting the scales in favour of remedial action. Every little helps. Also, if every council started issuing abatement notices, that would create further pressure on TW to act. The powers exist, after all.

The point was also made by WBC that it has done a lot of work in mitigating the problems itself, often incurring costs that it can’t recover from TW. This includes things like installing portaloos and positioning roadsigns warning of sewage flooding. The Council estimates it’s spent £10,000 plus officers’ time on since since January.

These are good things to do and I commend the work. However, to go no further is slightly to accept that the most a council can do is help clear up the mess. Now that it’s aware it has these new powers, the time has perhaps come – to continue with the military image – to move the battle into the enemy’s territory.

The phrase “holding Thames Water’s feet to the fire” has often been used. The sad reality is that no one seems to have a large enough fire: apart from the government, which has locked the lighter away in a drawer. WBC’s certainly isn’t big; perhaps no more than a match. However, if all the organisations that had the power to take such action lit a match at the same time, TW’s feet might at least start to twitch a bit. I can’t see what there is to lose.

• Residents’ news

Click here for the latest Residents’ Bulletin from West Berkshire Council.

News from your local councils

Most of the councils in the area we cover are single-tier with one municipal authority. The arrangements in Oxfordshire are different, with a County Council which is sub-divided into six district councils, of which the Vale of White Horse is one. In these two-tier authorities, the county and district have different responsibilities. In all cases, parish and town councils provide the first and most immediately accessible tier of local government.

West Berkshire Council

Click here for details of all current consultations being run by West Berkshire Council.

Click here to sign up to all or any of the wide range of  newsletters produced by West Berkshire Council.

Click here to see the latest West Berkshire Council Residents’ Bulletin (generally produced every week).

Click here for the latest news from West Berkshire Council.

Vale of White Horse Council

Click here for details of all current consultations being run by the Vale Council.

Click here for latest news from the Vale Council.

Click here for the South and Vale Business Support Newsletter archive (newsletters are generally produced each week).

Click here to sign up to any of the newsletters produced by the Vale’s parent authority, Oxfordshire County Council.

Wiltshire Council

Click here for details of all current consultations being run by Wiltshire Council.

Click here for the latest news from Wiltshire Council.

Swindon Council

Click here for details of all current consultations being run by Swindon Council.

Click here for the latest news from Swindon Council.

Parish and town councils

• Please see the News from your local council section in the respective weekly news columns (these also contain a wide range of other news stories and information on activities, events and local appeals and campaigns): Hungerford areaLambourn Valley; Marlborough area; Newbury area; Thatcham area; Compton and Downlands; Burghfield area; Wantage area

• Other news

• The examination of West Berkshire Council’s local plan is now under way. Click here for more information about this including (in annexe A) the day-by-day timetable. You can also click here to see the recordings of the sessions (these were briefly unavailable earlier this week but I’m now assured that these have returned and will remain).

Information here from West Berkshire Council about Foster-care Fortnight (13 to 26 May).

• West Berkshire Museum is “delighted to announce the acquisition of two contemporary art sculptures. These represent ‘Greenham Peace Women‘ and were created as part of the 2021 project ‘Peace Camp’, led by artist Jemima Brown. Read more here.

• Councillors have backed a motion at the recent Full Council meeting to give people who’ve been in care greater protection.

The animal of the week is this dog from a deserved internet viral sensation – the ultimate dog tease.

• A number of good causes have received valuable support recently: see the various news area sections (links above) for further details.

The quiz, the sketch and the song

• And we rock up at the Song of the Week. Based on the idea that a song can be great even if only two bars in the chorus are utter standouts, here’s A Thousand Trees by the Stereophonics.

• So next must be the Comedy Moment of the Week. Years ago we went to see one of Al Murray’s stand up shows in Swindon and it goes down as one of the funniest nights of my life. In this short clip, he explains one of the main differences between the English and the French based on one simple question.

• Which only leaves the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: What odd distinction does the A8(M) road in Scotland have? Last week’s question was: The largest turnout at the UK general election was in the constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone in 1931 – what percentage of population there voted? The answer is a staggering 93.4%.

For weekly news sections for Hungerford areaLambourn Valley; Marlborough area; Newbury area; Thatcham area; Compton and Downlands; Burghfield area; Wantage area  please click on the appropriate link

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